Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week, we spotlight 2011 Tillman Scholar Margaret (Maggie) Smith who enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 2004, earned her Master’s from Georgetown University, and is currently still on active duty. Maggie is also a breast cancer “Previvor,” having discovered in 2009 she had inherited the BRCA gene.
What was your motivation behind joining the service, was there a specific moment that stood out?
“I started Boston College in 1998 and left in 2001 after completing three years as I realized it wasn’t the right time for me to be in college. After doing some international travel to Europe and northern Africa and then returning to the states to move to Salt Lake City, I realized I was 24 and I didn’t have a college degree yet. One day I was watching the Red Sox play on TV and I saw an advertisement for the Army and thought that was a good way to finish up my degree. A month later I was in basic training.
I originally enlisted and then nine years into my career – while earning my Master’s Public Policy degree at Georgetown University – I made the choice to commission. I initially joined for educational purposes but my commissioning point became more than just a way to finish my education. It’s a way for me to serve purpose in life.”
In serving our country, what have you learned about yourself?
“I served one deployment while I was enlisted before entering the strategic world, serving in the Signal Corps. I enjoy being in the military but never at all expected to make it a career. I’ve learned a lot about resilience and how to work with different types of people as well as how to find the good in many different situations. You’re constantly aware of the people around you with so much emphasis on taking care of your battle buddy, but every now and then you also learn how to take care of yourself.”
When you were stationed in Fort Meade in 2009, you discovered you had the BRCA gene. You had to make some tough decisions upon that discovery – how has it impacted your life?
“That discovery was a pivotal point in my life as I learned it was something I inherited and as a result took action on it. It was actually empowering in a lot of ways – it feels like I got a second life. My maternal aunt passed away from breast cancer, and my mother has been battling it for a very long time, so to be a bystander and not be able to do anything is very devastating.
My mom discovered she carried the gene in 2005 while I was stationed in Germany. Certain things kept preventing me from getting the test and then I got pregnant with my daughter and when she was eight months old I was finally able to get the test. In the span of 4-5 years before I was able to get the test done, my husband and I had a lot of time to think about our options. So when the test came back positive, we decided it would be best to have all of the preventative surgeries right away. I had my first surgery in 2009, which was very empowering, giving me a sense of control over my health, which is something I had never really experienced before. I chose to have a bilateral mastectomy and total hysterectomy (on my 30th birthday) because I knew we weren’t going to have any more kids.”
How did the opportunity to appear in the breast cancer film series Five come about and what was that experience like for you?
“I work with an organization called FORCE – Facing Our Risk of Cancer, Empowered – who was contacted by a director who was working with Jennifer Aniston on this project. They needed a woman who was physically fit who had not had reconstructive surgery. I was enlisted at the time so I had to ask my First Sergeant for permission to be a Body Double for a stripper in the movie, which was one of the most hilarious moments in my life dealing with military leadership. I signed a Hollywood contract and had to do a scene with actor Taylor Kinney – who I was very impressed with! The film was a great experience after having the surgery. It gave me a lot of confidence in my choice that I had made to not reconstruct… and just being an image for people who don’t know what their options are.”
You attribute your recovery from your surgeries to the fact you were in shape, being an avid, competitive runner. Was running something you’ve always done and what has been your favorite race? How many marathons and ultramarathons have you completed?
“After my first major surgery, I had motivation to get up and get moving again because my husband signed me up for the Runner’s World Marathon challenge. That fall, with the help of the RW Challenge, I qualified for the Boston Marathon which gave me further motivation to get training for that race after my second surgery.
I’ve always been an athlete, playing three sports growing up, but was never really a ‘runner.’ Running is part of the Army, of course. So I started running prior to the surgeries and then really pushed it further afterwards and it was amazing to see my body heal, realizing the best way for me to get over my surgeries was to get out and get moving. I’ve been able to run for the All-Army Cross Country team and All-Army Marathon Team. I realized that as I was getting older that I would not continue to get faster so I have started running ultramarathons.
It’s hard to pick my favorite race and even though I’m a diehard trail runner, the Blue Ridge Marathon in Roanoke, Virginia has become my favorite, with the community support and location. I’ve run this road marathon three times now and will run it again next spring. To date, I have completed three ultramarathons and will hit 30 marathons when I run NYC with Team Tillman this fall.”
What sparked your interest in applying for the Tillman Scholar program?
“I love the mission of the organization. In looking for scholarships, I found the Pat Tillman Foundation during one of my searches. I was unsure if I would be considered because I was still on active duty, but still looking to go back to school. I applied and it ended up being a great fit for me as I’m really passionate about their mission.”
How has being a Tillman Scholar empowered you to do what you may not have otherwise had the opportunity to do?
“It made me a lot more comfortable choosing to go the officer route in the sense that my education would be supported. I’m an officer today because of the Pat Tillman Foundation. I have the opportunity to participate and engage in discussions and be put in situations on behalf of the organization that I never thought I would be in. The network that the Tillman Scholarship is able to provide makes me excited for the day that I will get out of the military and be able to give something back because there are so many opportunities to do amazing things and still have an impact. It’s neat to be associated with the organization – it’s a great feeling.”
What professional and personal goals have you set for yourself and what is your ultimate dream job?
“This past September I was selected to be in the Army’s new Cyber Branch so I’m very excited about that as there are a lot of opportunities and what ifs. Ultimately I would really like to go back to school, earn a PhD and then teach at the Army Cyber Institute at West Point. I envision being able to retire from the military as a professor and continuing to teach. I don’t envision any job after the military that will be totally disconnected from the military and my hope is to also get involved in one of the military nonprofit organizations out there.
The world is literally my oyster and I’m so excited about everything that has happened over the past five years. I couldn’t ask for anything better than to be part of so many amazing networks, including the Tillman Scholar community.”